Into the wilding: Trading lawns for meadows


A wildflower meadow. Photo by Lyn Des Marais

BRANDON–After giving the reader a brief history of gardening, Abby Adams, in her book, “The Gardener’s Gripe Book,” ends up describing the 1990s thus: “Meadows are in, lawns are out. Grasses are invited into flower borders, where the Black-Eye Susan is replacing the Rose. Open pollinated species are preferred over the newer hybrids. After 500 years, the practice of moving plants from one part of the world to another is now repudiated.” Welcome to the wilding or re-wilding movement. 

Abby predicts this won’t last as, “nothing does in gardening.” Despite Rachel Carson’s seminal book, “Silent Spring,” our lawns, fields, woods, and wetlands have been awash in chemicals since the Second World War. Wilding, or re-wilding, tries to undo the chemical damage, undo the monoculture of lawns and remove exotic species that have, too often, become pests.  A few examples of invasive species all around us in Brandon are grapevine, purple loosestrife (which is really fuchsia in color), oriental bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, exotic bush honeysuckle, buckthorn, several varieties of euonymus (burning bush), and Norway maple. These invasive plants do not feed native populations. Usually there are no animals or bugs that can control them (they overpopulate). Finally they harm their new environment ecologically or economically in some way.  

So 30 years on from the 1990s, how are we doing? Home gardeners and professional gardeners, in backyards and large parks, seem to be planting natives in droves. Are we mowing less (I’m not) or setting aside some space for meadow grasses, milkweed and other native plants at edges of maintained spaces? I am. Are we as a group trying to reduce water, pesticide, and herbicide usage? We do plant for pollinators, don’t we? We are beginning to maintain meadows for grassland birds. We are trying to reverse some of the damage done. We are re-wilding, perhaps, inch by inch. Can we do more and better? I’m sure we can. In an effort to do better we are being encouraged to make our lawns more productive. 

Photo by Lyn Des Marais

It’s hard to give up my lawn

Various groups use the same statistics about lawns from the EPA to encourage xeriscaping (low water desert-type plants), artificial lawns, Japanese stone gardens, pollinator habitat, or vegetable gardening. Our 40 million acres of lawns in the USA use 9 billion gallons of water per day, 200 million gallons of gas (for lawn mowers that use gas), and 70 million pounds of chemicals. Any extra chemicals that are spread but aren’t used are washed into our waterways. That’s a lot of chemicals to expose our selves, children, and grandchildren to.

I’m seeing changes here in Brandon. Someone has an entirely edible garden surrounding their house where a lawn once was. It’s beautiful. Others are adding shrubs, trees, and plants from sunflowers to vegetables to their lawns. Others are allowing wild verges to thrive on their property.  Still others are employing usable ground covers (thyme, mint). Clover is a particularly lovely pollinator friendly ground cover. Clover seed is carried right here in town at several stores.

Despite all that I know,  I still mow an enormous “lawn.”  I never sit on it, walk on it, picnic or grill on it, or do anything with it. I just look at it and see it–so neat and tidy. I’ve had neat and tidy driven deep into my psyche from generations of farming ancestors. It’s hard for me to give this up. Can I encourage the lazy side of my nature? Wilding, after all, is less maintenance: less mowing, less work, less machines, less gas spillage. What if I just make pathways in the taller grass? What if I mow twice a month instead of once a week? I have even tried to give up a flower bed, or three, for vegetables. Disaster. Let’s just say I’m no Jon or Courtney Satz. My corn is inedible, my tomatoes are small, my strawberries are tasty but fill less than a quart.  My cabbage, spinach and kale wilted. My peppers…let’s call it “failure to progress.” The only things that thrived were asparagus, potatoes, and zucchini–no surprises there. The only things that loved the heat and lack of water were my herbs and they bolted (went to seed). Did I thin my beets and carrots? No. Do I know to do this? Yes. Did we have a hot, dry summer? Yes. Did I ever turn on my drip irrigation system? Not once. I was too busy weeding flowers to notice I guess. Or perhaps I may have moved the drip system to my flower beds. Happily I’ve forgotten. 

That’s why I try hard not to give out too much advice in this column, I rarely take it myself.  

So this summer sit back, kick your shoes off and have fun re-wilding. For the next several months I’m going to, I hope, entertain and inspire you with stories and pictures of other gardeners in our corner of Vermont. I’m hoping to have a guest writer or two on meadows, pollinators and real re-wilding, which is, as you can imagine, much more work than I described. 

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